by Ejla Kovačević
On the occasion of the 19th edition of the 25 FPS Festival in Zagreb, I spoke with German-Japanese film artist Sylvia Schedelbauer who was invited to present a retrospective of her work. The retrospective was part of the festival’s side program, the “Analog Film in the Digital Age” Symposium, dedicated to found footage films and archival practices. Over the course of 20 years, Schedelbauer has developed a unique filmmaking style. Her films negotiate the space between broader historical narratives and personal, psychological realms, mainly through poetic manipulations of found and archival footage, resulting in immersive, aesthetically and discursively multi-layered works. After the retrospective, I was so fascinated by Schedelbauer that I decided to dig deeper into her biography, artwork and written texts. The result is this rather personal interview, and Schedelbauer, being highly approachable and well-spoken, not only uncovered complex layers of her work informed by feminism and her transnational identity, but also shared her insights on her arts education with second wave feminist Katharina Sieverding in Berlin.
Ejla Kovačević: I would like to start with your personal trajectory as an artist. While reading your article On the Visibility of Women’s Experimental Cinema: Birgit Hein and Ute Aurand in Germany, published in A Companion to Experimental Cinema (2022), I was particularly struck by the last part in which you describe your experience studying at the University of Arts in Berlin. I knew you studied photography, but didn’t know that was actually your second attempt at studying—you first studied sculpture but soon left at the age of 25 because you were met with racism and sexism within a patriarchal system. Could you tell me more about this experience and how it shaped your thoughts on the art industry?
Sylvia Schedelbauer: The experience politicized me in many ways and opened my eyes to larger issues, in the art world in general and in society at large. First, how women were objectified, how expectations for success were low to non-existent, how they were written out of history, how canonization and master narratives created exclusions and erasures; and later, to intersectionality, queer issues, post-colonial narratives and decolonization.
It’s hard to look back at the time when I first went to art school in the 1990s. This was long before artists like Monica Bonvicini, Josephine Pryde or Hito Steyerl arrived to teach at the university, and even Katharina Sieverding herself had just started there. This was a time where there was a disproportionate number of female students (70%), and a disproportionate number of male professors (85%). Sexism was blatant, it was a time when a professor would reject an application of a female student saying: “What do you want here, you will have children and soon disappear anyway.” Male professors hooked up with their female students, and the degree to which a male professor found a female student attractive became a toxic kind of currency. This sort of abuse of power went unchecked; to whom was one supposed to report it all? The post of women’s advocate was very new and still quite invisible. The perceived impression was that in the end, the same men sat in the committees that these reports would have ultimately been delivered to.
The university was predominantly White and German. Shades of racism were pervasive, from latent to very explicit, and were part of my day-to-day experience. I won’t repeat any examples—it’s not the kind of thing I would ever want to put in written form. Suffice to say that all of my exterior and interior, every inch of my body, inside and out, and every aspect of my subjectivity, have been exposed to intense racialization, interrogation, authentification, orientalizing and othering. That’s the double burden of anyone who is on the receiving end of racism: to not only have to endure the pain of it, but to also have the burden of processing it, of doing the constant labor of consciousness raising, and of course, ultimately, rising above.
It was hard for me to adjust in Germany, so I dropped out of university the first time around and went back to Japan. I lived there for three years, processing everything, before returning and re-entering the university, resolving to study with a female professor. After university, many years of itinerant living ensued, and I spent a lot of time abroad in the US. It was only about five years ago that I felt like I could finally allow myself to arrive in Berlin, 25 years after I first moved here. I felt that many positive changes had occurred. The city felt a bit more cosmopolitan and there was more and more representation in various spheres. I felt things were finally moving in the right direction.
But honestly, I am very worried about certain advances being currently rolled back in the German context, especially in the cultural arenas I am familiar with. Cultural institutions, film festivals and art spaces are supposed to create a safe space for fair dialogue between diverse voices. However, a nuanced dialogue cannot occur if under hierarchical terms and if marginalized voices must be subservient to prescribed positions. Parameters of diversity cannot be defined by the comfort zones of the White dominant society. Representation is crucial, and diversity must not be tokenized or instrumentalized. The art and film worlds and their institutions are crucial platforms, and closely mirror social processes. I still hope that they will rise to the responsibility of creating said safe spaces.
After coming back from Tokyo, as you said, you wanted to study with a female professor and joined German feminist artist Katharina Sieverding’s class. How did this experience differ from the one you had while studying sculpture and how did it inform your further work?
Studying with Katharina was intense and it couldn’t have been any more different. Previously, critiques were done one-on-one—that is to say, with only the professor and student present in the studio, which was quite common then. With Katharina, there were at least 40 peers present, sometimes up to a hundred people in the same room. We never had individual, private critiques. She kept herself in the background, let students speak and run the show, and only in rare instances added her perspective. In that way, she tried to offer a horizontal space, in contrast to that of the male professor I had studied sculpture with previously, who clearly spoke from a position of power and authority.
Katharina encouraged us to deal with our own history, experience and subjectivity and find an idiosyncratic expression. Most students made personal work and used themselves as points of departure, projection surfaces or subject matters. Her master class (that’s what classes are still called in fine art departments at art schools in Germany) was a forum for self-experimentation. Katharina herself had studied with Joseph Beuys and applied a similar (but modified) open space for students and non-students to arrive in. She invited several lecturers and guest professors, almost exclusively women, to teach classes on post-colonialism, feminism, gender-studies, but also in theory, visual culture studies and art history. It was like a miniature school within a school; a forum that integrated a lot of misfits and outsiders, predominantly women, but also lots of queer students. The discussions around the work were quite brutal because they were existential, and cathartic for some.
I became a representative of the student body and worked as the women’s advocate—a position at public institutions in Germany that, among other things, oversees the hiring processes of women. I became aware that even if women delivered work as good as the work of men, it often went under-recognized, and was at times even discounted and devalued. I became aware that representation is crucial, in every way. That in order to change the discourse, it must firmly assimilate a diverse cast of agents. That minorities must inhabit all sections of work spaces—in universities and art schools, as professors; in hospitals as doctors and surgeons; in court rooms as lawyers and judges; in governments as members of parliament. And of course, in the art markets as equally paid artists. How can it still be true that art made by men is valued so much more than art made by women, in monetary terms?
But back to your question—Katharina and her forum definitely furnished me with the tools for critical discourse, to always probe and look beyond surfaces, and, most importantly, to be a fighter. In terms of my work, in Katharina’s forum I learned that the personal is political. I felt for the first time that my voice mattered, and this gave me courage to keep on making work.
You started making films by mere chance. Your first film, Memories (2004), was actually an assignment for a war photography class, a personal documentary in which you try to reconstruct your parents’ past and how they met. Is this also the first time you thought of transnational identity as a subject, which later became prominent in your work?
Thinking about transnational identity is actually not something that started with my first work. It is something that has always been a part of my experience ever since I can remember. My father was German, my mother is Japanese. From birth on, I was always labeled as half-Japanese: hafu (in Japanese), or Halbjapanerin (in German). This was not something that was ever ignored, in any context, anywhere we went, and thus it was inscribed into my early experience. I was born in 1973, and historically speaking, both in Japan and in Germany, it was still a time when racial and cultural mixing was strongly associated with problems. Interracial couples were made aware that their kids may experience racism, as well as linguistic and cultural problems. I grew up trilingual, and it took me much, much longer to feel confident in the German, Japanese or English languages than people who grew up speaking only one language. Looking at myself in the mirror always made me aware of my difference, especially as a child and coming of age in Tokyo—I was born in Japan and spent my first 20 years there.
Still, when I made my first work, that was a marker of sorts, clearly a point of departure. With Memories, I became aware of narration and narratives, and how the personal, small, family story is embedded within a larger framework of society and world events. The key driving factor was the secrecy that surrounded how my parents met. I think that if there is erasure, then there may be a deep urge to retrieve, reconstruct or reclaim elements of that which has been erased. Had they given me what felt like the truth, I may not have become interested in the subject matter of history in general, and of transnational Japan in particular.
Just as language evolves, the labels for my identity have changed over the course of my life—depending on what was fashionable at the time. The term that has always been valid, to this day, is “half-Japanese”. Beyond that, I’ve been “mixed”, “bi-cultural”, “intercultural”, “bi-national”, “international”, “a citizen of the world”… I won’t mention all the derogatory terms that were absolutely in normalized and widespread use when I was growing up. At this moment, “transnational” seems to make sense to me, as it denotes a movement of sorts.
Your work is heavily based on found footage and I found it interesting that your first encounter with this practice was during a found footage film class at the University where you saw Tribulation 99: Alien Anomalies Under America (1992) by Craig Baldwin. Why did this particular film strike you?
I liked everything that the film is known for: that it was a political counter-culture satire, that it was a pseudo-documentary, stitched together from B-movies, weaving in conspiracy theories, religious superstition, paranoid rants and prophecies, to form a fast-paced science-fiction that chronicles real historical events—that of American imperialism in general, and US intervention in Latin America in particular. What struck me deeply is how the film used snippets from Japanese science-fiction B-movies, and it felt like parts of my memory were rerouted in this unknown way—not in any literal or straight way, but in a very hijacked way. When I first saw the film it blew my mind; I had never seen anything like it before. It felt like it was humorous at the same time that it was an angry, scathing criticism of the American Empire. What also struck me was that the film didn’t seem to care about art institutions, or that it didn’t even try to be art. This particularly impressed me because it felt like it seemed to be speaking to different audiences, and it introduced me to the realms of underground and political films.
You actually then met Craig Baldwin at the Werkleitz Biennale in Germany, where he held a workshop and you went to San Francisco to help him edit his feature film Mock Up on Mu (2008). How was this experience for you?
It was very much like a second, or third and very different, very informal education, this time in found footage filmmaking. I had seen A Movie by Bruce Conner in art school, but I didn’t learn much about the historical avant-garde and experimental, particularly the West Coast film cultures. I didn’t know that the Bay Area had a very particular history of found footage filmmaking, not least because of its location north of Hollywood and L.A., where so many reels of abandoned films washed up. I didn’t know that Craig was a student of Bruce Conner, and that his filmmaking is, of course, related to and influenced by Conner’s work. My second film, Remote Intimacy, in turn pays tribute to these influences. I don’t use détournement in the way Baldwin or Conner use it per se, but I separate image and sound from their respective original contexts and bring them together with intentional dissociation, so that the montage of picture, sound, voice and text open up a space for new readings, new meanings.
I learned about grassroots communities and art making, and the ethos to work with what is available taught me to work beyond institutional funding and support (also known as “availabism”). Getting to know the film programs through various venues such as Other Cinema, ATA (Artists’ Television Access), San Francisco Cinematheque and the Pacific Film Archives allowed me to encounter a wide range of film practices. I also learned that some big and famous institutions started out as grassroots, self-organized endeavors, by a handful of dedicated filmmakers and artists. It was a good lesson in a particular chapter of the American avant-garde. I also encountered very important works that were very influential for me, such as those of Trinh T. Minh-ha, Rea Tajiri, and other artists from Asian American communities. But yes, the bottom line and motto I took away is: work with what you have, don’t let a lack of support stop you from making art. Self-organize, find or create a support network, and persevere.
You also mentioned in one of your texts that getting to know the experimental film scene in San Francisco made you realize it’s also a field dominated by men. Can you elaborate on that?
When I started showing films, more often than not, I was the only woman in the program—I’m speaking of experimental film programs, formerly known as avant-garde programs in the Anglo American context. It was a time when I wouldn’t even bother applying for funding, residencies or fellowships because narratives of success still seemed only conceivable for white men. Luckily, things have changed quite a lot in the past years, there is definitely a bit more diversity than twenty years ago. Kevin Jerome Everson perhaps opened a path for the next generation of African American experimental filmmakers, such as Ja’Tovia Gary, Ephrain Asili and Akosua Adoma Owusu. Indigenous filmmakers have become very successful, such as Sky Hopinka, Colectivo Los Ingrávidos, or Adam & Zack Khalil. Similarly, in Europe, things are slowly changing as well. In Germany, we have artist filmmakers such as Turkish-German Aykan Safoğlu, Vietnamese-German Thuy-Han Nguyen-Chi, and very strong queer voices such as Vika Kirchenbauer. The lines between experimental film and art seem more blurred than ever before, which, perhaps, is not surprising.
It’s important to be cognizant of positive developments, but maybe it’s equally important to keep doing a reality check. In Germany, there is an association called Pro Quota. According to them, “only 15% of films are directed by women. Female directors receive a maximum of 10% of the funding, even though women account for almost half of the university degrees in directing. The problem begins long before the submission to film funding. Women’s projects are overlooked or relegated to the low budget area right from the development stage.” The same kind of reality check is surely necessary in the art worlds, both in regards to representation and to the race and gender pay gap.
In your retrospective at the 25 FPS Festival in Zagreb you showed six of your films, from the earliest Memories (2004) and Way Fare (2009), Sea of Vapors (2014) to the most recent: Labor of Love (2020), In the Beginning, Woman Was the Sun (2022) and Oh, Butterfly! (2022). I really like that you often insert footage of yourself, be it as a grown up or as a child, from your parents’ home videos. How did this decision come about?
I think all my films are personal, even the ones that are abstract. So in that sense, there is a part of me in every film. But I haven’t actually inserted images of myself that often, except in the first film Memories, which was an autobiography, and in the most recent film, Oh, Butterfly! (There are close up shots of my mother’s eye in Sounding Glass, but that’s not very obvious.) The reason I didn’t insert myself more directly in all the films in between was that I tried to explore the themes and issues on a more abstract level, conceptually, audio-visually, metaphorically, and most importantly, removed from my personal experience. I didn’t dare continue working around identity after making my first two films Memories and Remote Intimacy for many reasons. But now, I’m returning more directly to questions of history, memory and transnational identity and that’s probably why I decided to use home movies in my most recent film Oh, Butterfly!.
Oh, Butterfly! particularly struck me. It’s such a complex, multilayered work. You use the orientalist story of Madame Butterfly as a base, which is about a romantic relationship between a U.S naval officer and a 15-year-old Japanese girl. It seems to be your take on the relationship between your parents, your father being German and your mother Japanese, who were children during the Second World War. But the fictional story is actually quite sad and reflects uneven, colonialist power dynamics, as well as a trope of a submissive orientalized woman, as is seen in many excerpts from various films which were based on the book. Can you tell me more about this work and why you chose Madame Butterfly to explore interracial love?
I’ve been interested in the history of Western-Japanese subjectivities and their representation in visual culture for a very long time, having grown up with a perceived lack of said representations. And when dealing with this particular history, there was no way around the myth of Madame Butterfly. I never really liked the opera; I remember watching it with my parents once in Berlin and hating the orientalist depictions, and everything about the story and representations. Yet, the melody of the famous aria “Un bel dì, vedremo” seems engraved in my primal memory. It’s odd because these memories aren’t necessarily bad—on the contrary, there are happy impressions associated with them: that of my dad enjoying weekend down time, my mom emphatically humming along with the music. And the aria itself is abstract if you don’t speak Italian—that is, if opera language can be understood at all, since the delivery of language is already abstracted to a degree. So as listeners we didn’t necessarily grasp anything beyond, perhaps, that there was a sense of longing in the music.
There are a lot of ways to unpack the Madame Butterfly myth, and a vast amount of critical examination has been produced. There have been many attempts at trying to ascertain how much of the story was true—if anything was true at all—and numerous texts attest to that. A number of historical women have been named in an attempt to frame who the story was based on. There is a former private residency turned into a museum in Nagasaki, Japan, called Glover Garden, which has nothing to do with the opera. But because it looks as if it could have been the setting, it is informally named the Madame Butterfly House and bronze statues of Giacomo Puccini, the composer, and Japanese soprano Miura Tamaki are in the park near the Glover House.
There have been spin-off narratives that reimagine the myth in China (The Toll of the Sea) or in the Vietnam War (Miss Saigon), there has been a Broadway musical (M. Butterfly by David Henry Hwang) and a cinematic interpretation of the same (M. Butterfly by David Cronenberg). There has been a lot of academic writing, as well as amateur musings, along with novels that even try to picture the continuation of the story. I felt like anything and everything that could ever be said about the opera had already been said and done. But I knew that I still wanted to take this subject matter on, and for me, the best way to approach it was from a personal perspective.
There were two main angles that I focused on: first, how the myth created various biases, and how I may have internalized some of these biases in the way I have imagined my parents’ history. The second angle was the child born between Butterfly and Pinkerton, outrageously called “Trouble,” both in the original novel and in the opera. This touches upon another issue that I already mentioned, that historically speaking, transnational children were often considered a problem. So, in the second half of the film, there is a montage of scenes with the child. The Butterfly narrative is terrible, and has been critically deconstructed in many ways. What seemingly hasn’t been paid too much attention to is the child in the story. What about the child? The name “Trouble” seems to summarize it all. If this were a comedy, that may have been funny. But how is he represented? What happens to him, how he is shown and how he is supposed to feel and identify in this messy transnational affair?
Thinking around these questions allowed me to insert Super 8 footage of my parents, but also footage of me as a child and as an adult. On one hand, my parents and I become proxies of sorts in the film. On the other hand, inserting footage of myself as an adult became my way of commenting on the various elements that are overlayed in a kind of palimpsest. I also hoped to create a relation between the personal and the myth, between the viewer and the material.
I really like that you juxtaposed many versions of the opera by Puccini—that is, you solely used footage of female opera singers. For me it was a very powerful, if not an emancipatory, moment seeing performing all together, as if all these women from different parts of the world took over the narrative of Madame Butterfly. Was it something you had in mind?
I’m glad to hear that you felt an emancipatory moment with the soprano singers! I wondered about that while editing, whether it was possible at all to imbue the singers with any kind of subversive agency. Given the problematic role they perform, and the gender issues in the operatic genre, I wasn’t convinced it was possible.
When I started working on this project, I knew that I wanted to include the famous aria “Un bel dì, vedremo.” At the beginning, I knew very little about opera in general, but in the process of collecting footage, I started to get a basic understanding of this particular piece of music. First and foremost, I was perplexed by the fact that Madame Butterfly continues to be performed around the world, in any city that has an opera house. There are many women from Asia and the Global South who have performed the role as Butterfly, some to great international success. “Un bel dì, vedremo” is one of the most popular pieces in the soprano repertoire, and mastering it is considered a demonstration of artistic virtuosity—perhaps this explains the continued popularity of the opera.
Over the course of the editing process, I got to appreciate the various performers. It was fascinating to get a feeling for how the singers all have their own interpretations, tempo, dramatizations, and that they sing in different registers of soprano—some higher, some lower, some faster, some slower. Editing them together created a patchwork of these different performances, and as such, in my film, the aria developed its own logic in the sense of pacing, tonality and texture.
I edited the aria so that every performer sings one word. And that brings us back to the content: ostensibly, the main character, Cio-Cio-san (Madame Butterfly) pictures the return of her absent love. But the words are awful because they imagine a docile, subservient, naive woman, and the representation of her is racist and culturally ignorant. There is a stark discrepancy between the content of what the sopranos actually sing and the powerful performances of the singers. I was also interested in the various notions of performances that seemed to be at play: the sopranos are supposed to be performing the role of a naive 15 year-old Japanese woman, then they are performing a certain operatic archetype, then they are performing their own feminine personas, and many of them are divas.
In the end of the film we hear you and your mother talking about the story of Madame Butterfly, explaining the context of it. Why did you choose to insert this conversation?
I approached my film as a material collection of text, sound, music and cinematic representations of all that I could find relating to the Madame Butterfly myth. So the film displays just that—a collection of references, to which I add my own editorial interventions of interweaving, juxtaposing, superimposing and commenting on the material. My point of departure was a scene taken from David Cronenberg’s M. Butterfly, which, along with the eponymous Broadway play, is one of very few subversive interpretations of the racist stereotypes that are reproduced over and over in the opera. As I worked on the project, I realized that while many people knew the melody or even the name of the opera, not that many knew what the story was about. So I thought audiences might benefit from being reminded, or learning about the synopsis. First, I wanted to include a freestyle conversation with my mother, but that turned out to not work at all. I recorded our conversation, which was much too long and unfocused to include in the film. I extracted the main points that she brought up, and scripted the epilogue according to our respective opinions. I hoped that these would offer a small range of readings of the opera, as some may agree with my mother, that it’s simply a sad love story in which the woman gets deceived. On the other hand, there are those who criticize the opera, which is reflected more in my voice as the interlocutor.
In a somewhat similar vein you also approach the subject of Japanese suffragettes and feminists in the film In the Beginning, Woman Was the Sun. It’s a stunning homage to these fierce women and I like that it is completely non-narrative, a cine-poem relying solely on the collage of their photographs, juxtaposing and superimposing them with the motif of the sun, which, as we see in the ending credits, is actually inspired by a Hiratsuka Raicho poem from 1911. For me, the film had almost mystical undertones, depicting these women as sisters all united and existing in our present, collective female subconscious, as powerful witches. Why did you decide to take the experimental approach to this subject and could you tell me more about your filmmaking process?
I’m so glad to hear that you enjoyed In the Beginning, Woman Was the Sun! I didn’t have much time to make the work; it was made in less than three months. I quickly decided on using Hiratsuka Raicho’s poem, because her simple but powerful words seemed to say so much, and as you said, it allowed me to find visual metaphors and themes for the film. To me, the poem makes particular references to Japan, but it also opens up to a more universal reading, as the rights the suffragettes, and later feminists, fought for are universal: the right to vote, the right to emancipation and the right to abortion.
Perhaps what you have perceived as mystical undertones are in fact very intentionally placed. In one section of the film, I superimposed images of dancing women with footage of rain in abstract bluish/purplish/reddish overlays, with the moon as a backdrop to make them look like they are participating in some sort of ritual. Indeed, I had Silvia Federici’s witches in mind when editing this particular sequence—it’s contextually completely unrelated, but it gave me an internal visual theme. What may be obvious to Japanese people, but not so obvious to others, is that Hiratsuka references the Shinto goddess of the sun, Amaterasu. Another piece of information that’s perhaps not so well known, is that Japan used to be a matriarchy until the 7th Century, when Confucianism was imported from China. There is a woodblock print of Amaterasu in the film, although a little obscured, as I didn’t want the reference to come across as too literal. But I definitely wanted her in there, and she appears very briefly, right after the two woodblock prints of Murasaki Shikibu, a female poet and writer, who lived in the 11th century. Murasaki doesn’t exactly fit thematically, but who doesn’t love a famous female author who is considered to have written the world’s first novel? I justified her presence as an inspiring historical figure, and as a visual link from more recent times to the sun goddess.
Hiratsuka’s poem alludes to religious mythology as well as historical facts that women, indeed, used to have autonomy and power. In the beginning of my film, we predominantly see images of the moon—this also directly quotes Hiratsuka’s poem, that women today were like the moon, “living dependent on others, reflecting their brilliance.” According to the Global Gender Gap Report, conducted by the World Economic Forum, Japan has been fluctuating somewhere between the 120th and 130th places in the past decade or so, out of 146 countries surveyed. While more women than ever before have entered the workplace, Japan has one of the lowest levels of gender equality among industrialized countries, and business opportunities remain geared toward men. Over the first half of the film, images of the moon dominate that of the sun, but over the course of the second half, the sun comes out more strongly, and the film ends with shots of solar flares. With the intensity of the fierce flicker between the sun and the moon, I wanted to metaphorically translate the struggle for social progress and gender parity.
As to the images of the feminists and the non-narrative approach: with only very little time for the research phase, and knowing I was making a poetic flicker film, I decided to feature images of those feminists I could find through online research. This wasn’t going to be a comprehensive overview of Japanese women’s movements, but an homage of sorts. I hoped it would be as much a celebration of the suffragettes and feminists, as it was a very brief non-linear, poetic survey of this particular history. I loved the spirit and energy of the women, so fierce and confident, they seemed to carry within them the light and energy of Amaterasu, the sun goddess.
Alongside these films that deal with a rather clear subject, you’ve made films like Sea of Vapors and Labor of Love which are abstract works, based on universal symbols that remind us of the interconnectedness between humans and nature. I would say they are very spiritual works, taking the viewer into a subconscious, primordial space and time, thanks to powerful music and superimposition of flickering images that melt into each other to create an immersive experience. What motivated you to make these films on lunar cycles and love, more precisely?
I think the first films I made were weighted down by history, inherited trauma, familial conflicts and identity issues. I wanted to prove to myself that I was capable of making work that is free of that particular weight; that I could, if I wanted, also make films that are a little more universal.
I was very aware of the traditions in experimental cinema that I owe many of my influences to, especially in terms of the structural and flicker genre. My deep love for latent images was first triggered by rather canonized American and European filmmakers. Ken Jacobs’ Eternalisms, Bruce McClure’s live projector performances, Martin Arnold’s obsessive deconstructions of split seconds, Peter Tscherkassky’s laser sharp fragmentations of images—all white men. But there were also the iconic Japanese filmmakers that left a deep mark, like Matsumoto Toshio’s Atman. I especially had a very deep fondness for Ito Takashi’s entire oeuvre. I was fascinated by their cinematic maximalism of expression, pace, range, speed. How latent images, barely glimpsed on screen, could reveal such tremendous energy and powerful psychological states. I learned to see differently, learned to understand cinema differently. But I was always aware that these works were all from a very male perspective. With Sea of Vapors, I wanted to create a corresponding maximalism, and yet engender it decidedly female. This may sound strange, but it was a challenge I had posed myself. I wanted the latent image, I wanted the structuralism and strobe, I wanted the intensity and overwhelming loudness, and I firmly wanted it to be from and about a woman’s perspective.
I have to add that gaining access to any of women’s experimental films beyond a sparse handful of iconic work was extremely difficult. Everyone loves Maya Deren, but even the oeuvres of Barbara Hammer, Gunvor Nelson and Carolee Schneemann were harder to access, as the internet, YouTube and Vimeo were in their infancy in my formative years. I’ve only recently learned about Claudine Eizykman’s work in conversations around No Master Territories, an important exhibition recently held in Berlin, curated by Erika Balsom and Hila Peleg. This exhibition certainly left a deep mark on me, and I’m still continuing to unpack and process it.
As to Labor of Love: the desire to make a film about love had been brewing for a while, after having had many conversations around all things love with a dear friend and neighbor, the queer anthropologist Omar Kasmani. We casually called our ritual conversations “Love Talks” and we even wrote about it in a collaborative text, which is available on my website.
But the actual trigger to begin working on the film came after the tragic death of Paul Clipson, a Bay Area friend and colleague who passed away in 2018. Not being able to be in San Francisco for the memorial events was hard, and I processed some of my grief by watching all his films, which used to be available on Vimeo. I felt inspired to make work that channeled his generous artistic spirit, and I wanted to make a film that spoke to some of the larger issues around love that I had been thinking about, beyond notions of romantic love and personal experience, through books and, majorly, in conversations with Omar.
Your abstract works, just by feeling, actually remind me a bit of Paul Clipson’s films. They rely on the burst of imagery, tactile as well as delicate. I know you wrote an imaginary letter to him as part of the 40th anniversary of Light Cone where you describe your close friendship and how you influenced each other. Can you tell me more about your relationship?
Anyone who had the pleasure of getting to know Paul a little more closely enjoyed his incredible generosity of spirit. He was humble, sensitive, caring and had an almost unparalleled dedication to the cinematic arts, as a filmmaker and artist, but also as a projectionist and community member. It’s funny because Zagreb was one place Paul and I hung out in, where we connected over a dinner conversation. He had been invited to do a live cinema show at 25 FPS, I think it was in 2011, and I attended the international analog film labs meeting as part of LaborBerlin. I remember our conversation vividly. Paul and I talked about our sources of inspirations, how books accompanied our work processes, our deep love of Franz Kafka as adolescents, but also as adults. It was the kind of friendship where I felt comfortable to talk about almost anything. I think friends of Paul know that that is the kind of person he was, he was very courteous, goofy in his way and very warm — always made others feel comfortable. What I think we had in common, or what we perhaps developed in our own concurrent ways, with cross-inspirations, was to use elements from nature as poetic carriers and metaphors. It’s absolutely tragic that he left us too soon, but I know his spirit lives on. Just last week I met with Liz Harris (Nivhek/Grouper), a musician that Paul collaborated with. Even though Liz and I didn’t actually talk a lot about Paul this time, I feel that he is somehow always present in the way we interact with each other.
Finally, it’s a bit of a cheesy question, but I’m interested in the films and filmmakers you cherish nowadays or that left a mark on you.
It’s hard for me to speak in general terms, because my relationships to films evolve and change with time. It’s much easier to look back and reflect on the past, so ongoing impacts are harder to pinpoint. But I can, with honest appreciation, say that the programming at the 25 FPS festival was wonderful. I loved the various voices in the program, and I was really impressed about the awards given, to three very powerful works by three different women: Mast-del by Maryam Tafakory, Valerija by Sara Jurinčić and Into the Violet Belly by Thuy-Han Nguyen-Chi. And the latter soon after went on to win the German short film award! Seeing these films awarded was a moment of great hope for me. To give a cheesy answer: faith restored.
Ejla Kovačević is a Croatian film critic. She’s been a long-time collaborator of International Experimental Film and Video Festival – 25 FPS and an active member of film lab communities dedicated to the promotion and preservation of analog film practices. As a member of Zagreb-based filmlab Klubvizija she organized numerous workshops and projections, continuously sharing her passion for photochemical experiments that never cease to surprise her.
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